Mariele Neudecker has long been preoccupied with place, subjective perception and the Romantic imagination. Her art reflects on the nature of memory and, more specifically, the memory of Nature. Deeply inflected by the fraught cultural inheritances of her Germanic heritage and the painting traditions of Caspar David Friedrich, Lars Hertevig and Francis Danby, Neudecker’s work also invokes discourses of mapping and measurement. It addresses itself to humanity’s attempts – historic and contemporary – to quantify and categorize the matter (in both senses) of its context. Most famous for the ‘tanks’ in which she restages 19th century landscape paintings as intricately crafted, numinous dioramas, she is an artist not of but about the Sublime.
These preoccupations and production methods set her practice at odds with dominant trends in the contemporary art world and recommend her work to critical curiosity. For There Is Always Something More Important, the artist has brought together a body of sculpture, painting, video and photographic works produced between 2010 and 2014. Although the work on show was made neither all at once, nor all for this show, the effect is pleasingly unified. Notwithstanding this formal and conceptual congruity, we leave the gallery perturbed by a sense of notquiteness, prickled by a semi-sated suspicion that something promised has been not entirely delivered. And it is exactly that state – of frozen imminence, irked by foreclosed incipience – that is, I believe, what Neudecker seeks to induce in her audience.
Entering the gallery, it is impossible not to be struck by the 2012 sculpture that gives the exhibition its name. A fibre-glass glacier stands proud on the gallery floor. Opaquely white, faintly stained with turquoise in reflection of an absent sky, it trails a fragmented coda of broken glacier bits. At both front and back, the awesome ice-mass shows a surgically sheer aspect. Reminiscent of theatrical or TV sets, these flats make perverse the extraordinary ‘authenticity’ of the craggy finish elsewhere attained. Consummately carved textural exactitude is rendered absurd by blatantly machinic perfection. There is no viewing point from which these blank facie cannot be seen; no vista from which the spectacle looks whole. Solicited to suspend disbelief, to give in to illusionistic spectacle and see a glacier, the viewer is forced simultaneously to keep in view the intractable evidence of the fraud. It tantalizes us with a prospect of sublime experience and, in denying us its consummation, makes us uncomfortably aware of the drive generating that desire.
The glacier is at once notionally massive and physically too small: its proportions modeled on a banalizingly human scale. On the wall directly behind it two 10.2 inch monitors are mounted – further blighting the already compromised view. They show a two-channel video depicting a pair of glacier-populated seascapes. Soundtracked by a broad blur of boat engines, wind, and water, the human population absent from both object and images is aurally invoked by the incidental noise of their vessels and the unfiltered harvestings of their recording devices.
To the right, Recent Futures, twelve sets of paired giclée prints present 24 crayon-adjusted photographs of the arctic sky – recalling, in their solar focus, earlier works such as Another Day (2000). The mixed-media works (drawings, and pinhole, polaroid and over-painted photographs) of Between Two Tides (2014) occupy other walls. As well as land, sea and skyscapes, this constellation of 2D works includes various drawn and painted studies made by the artist in the course of her journey to the Arctic. Some of these images have been obscured or defaced by drips or splatters. Others, made on gridded paper, connote scientific experiment while documentary-style photographs from the artist’s expedition to Greenland mix exteriors of Inuit dwellings with intimate shots of domestic interiors. In images which immediately evoke the dubious ethics and nostalgic discourses of anthropological travelogues, self-consciously candid portraits of traditional familial lifeways are depicted in clichéd juxtaposition with jarring traces of consumer capitalism.
In an antechamber adjoining the primary space, another of Neudecker’s astonishing topographical effigies is installed. A tiny mauve and violet mountain range is connected via four slender steel stanchions to a white cenotaph. This sits, in turn, atop a heavy wooden box. Thus triply reified (or more, if we count the bevelled strata of the intermediate layer), the meticulously detailed mass appears to float even as it exposes the tripartite architecture of its elevation. This magic mountain-come-to-earth is marked, as per Neudecker’s custom, with the traces of human intervention: a series of tiny posts (indicators of altitude) protrude from a number of its peaks.
Back in the main room, three components (1, 3, 4) of the five-channel video installation, Horizontal Vertical (2013), are installed on three small screens. The deep-sea footage they show was filmed by remotely operated vehicles as part of a research project developed in collaboration with Neudecker by the Oxford University marine biologist, Dr. Alex Rogers. All three videos show the sea-floor, and not much else – eschewing, with their tight vertical frame, any sense of the immense depth (3,000 metres below) at which they were gathered. One (no.3) is shot at a disorientatingly oblique angle. The fourth, in which the camera seems to move with increased kinetic agency, has apparently been reversed, as fish swim backwards across the screen. Wavering images evocative of an abstract flat-bed picture plane are intermittently intruded upon. Moving slowly over the subaqua surface, we see rocks, sea urchins, a scintillatingly metallic shoal of fish, seagrasses, indistinctly sparkly floating particles, and an unexpectedly high proportion of man-made objects: pipes, cages, machine-parts. In addition to these relics of past industry, the camera’s coppery armature frequently comes into view, and flickering red dots remind us of the recording technologies by which the footage was collected. Whereas the soundtrack of the two-channel video was temporally coherent with the visuals it accompanied, the soundscape in this instance is constituted of sounds collected during the editing process. The sounds of elsewhere, added after the fact, these traffic sounds, muffled heartbeats and other ambient urban humdrum overlay the moving images with banal incongruities. Sonically citing the extradiegetic context of the production process, this soundtrack draws attention yet again to the subjective interventions made by an unseen, but repeatedly implicated, human editor. Recently, Neudecker described a move away from a practice based on research ‘that is looking at representations, photographs, paintings and other data’ and towards the ‘subjective experience that was so fundamental to the Romantic Sublime of the 19th Century’. These videos articulate that subjective perception and its processes of re-presentation.
The last piece, Dark Years Away (2013) comprises a projected video (6 mins) below which a small monitor plays another video (5 mins). The dark box within which it is housed has been fitted out with a grey, nylon office carpet: introduced, presumably, to absorb both sound and any stray resonances of transcendental experience. This time, the visuals are accompanied by a hyperbolically epic and spacey classical score by Peteris Vasks. Back once again, at the bottom of the south-west Indian Ocean, we watch a looped sequence in which a remotely operated machine scoops matter, ineffectually, from the seafloor. Acting to no obvious end, it scrapes clumsily, sending sprays of dust into a slow-settling motion. The disturbed silt suspension repeatedly obscures our view of the robotic arm’s ineffable functioning. Humans are active in this submarine sector too, then, but it is unclear what, if anything, they are achieving there. The soundtrack invites the listener to experience an epic encounter with the sublime, even as the Sisyphean repetition onscreen rescinds that invitation. Sonically cued to anticipate sight – if not of infinitude then at least of some deep-sea leviathan – we witness only the grasping of a mechanical claw.
On the floor the lower monitor relays a still less dynamic scene. In footage from another zone, suspended stuff floats, we see again the bracket supporting the recording device and, too, the visual markers (red guide lights, lines of light) of its operation. Relaying footage from a quiet zone, the monitor proposes itself as a scientific ‘control’ of a sort: a suggestion overturned by the unyielding arbitrariness of its content. Again, as in Horizontal Vertical, we are denied the specular experience of the expanse available to the camera’s lens. The frame fixates on a distinctly non-spectacular scene. Recalling her first experience of the Arctic landscape, Neudecker writes: ‘Somehow the sockets of my eyes suddenly seem to be too small, close, too tight and deep. I want to have 360-degree vision. Needless to say: my camera lens frames and crops everything way too small and too tightly’. As Eszter Barbarczy has observed, ‘If there is one great enemy of Romanticism, it is containment’, and Neudecker frequently re-enacts this opposition.
There is Always Something More Important might be read as the concrete evocation of this condition of sensory inadequacy: a playful dramatization of the impossibility of seeing all of it, all of the time. There is no way adequately to ‘take in’ the sublime spectacle of an Arctic seascape; no hope for a single viewer, a single set of senses, to encompass the totality of such immense topographies – below or above sea level. Even the ideal monadic wanderer of the 19th century Romantic imagination is doomed, like that hopelessly scraping mechanical claw, to fail in this effort. What we get instead, and what we can absorb, is a semi-shoddy fibreglass replica, an utterly boring dig at the murky bottom of the sea. This exhibition constructs a viewing and, crucially, a listening regime that responds to the futility of the attempt to grasp what is, categorically, beyond us. Neudecker’s work does not just point up the fallacy of sublime experience. It compels our confounded recognition – Over And Over, Again And Again and contra the evidence assembled – of the will to the sublime.